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Finding Purpose in Words
Nichole LeFebvre

 The NIA Speaker of Color Series Welcomes NYT Bestselling Author Kwame Alexander 

 

  

“Words have been such a big part of my life,” said Kwame Alexander, opening the 18th installment of the NIA Speaker of Color Series. The author, like the NIA committee, is guided by purpose, and has always turned to literature to find meaning. Both of his parents were educators and filled his childhood home with books. “Books everywhere!” said Alexander. “My life was filled with Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and my favorite...Dr. Seuss.” 

Kwame Alexander loved Seuss’s Fox in Socks so much, he once used it to fight a bully. He told the virtual audience––over 400 people––how, in preschool, he built a house out of blocks and a classmate knocked it over. At the end of the day, young Alexander went up to the other boy with “the only weapon” he had, his words. Riffing off Fox in Socks, Alexander said, “Those were my blocks that you flicked. Lest you want a quick payback, better fix my blocks stat!” The boy who’d teased him ended up crying and his teacher told Mrs. Alexander: “We have a problem. Your son is arrogant. He intimidates the other kids with his words.”  

What his mother said next, “thank you,” cemented young Kwame Alexander’s confidence. “We teach our son to use his words,” she said.   

His mother’s lesson certainly worked. The New York Times bestselling author of 32 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning novel The Crossover, Kwame Alexander continues to find his power in language, and now gives back by encouraging young readers, especially Black boys, to find their own voice. His powerful message aligns perfectly with NIA’s goal of increasing BIPOC access and inclusivity at the School.

Four Head-Royce students, Jackson M. '28, Owen C. '27, Malcolm W. '24, and Richie J. '24,  joined the author on screen to ask him their questions and moderate the audience Q+A. 

“Going into it, I was a bit nervous because you always hear about people of Mr. Alexander's status who aren't approachable,” said Malcolm W. '24. “However, it was like I was just talking with a bunch of friends at lunch. He's a super friendly guy.” 

Malcolm asked the first question of the night: “How would you describe poetry in your own words, and how would you describe spoken word poetry?” 

“Poetry is the right words in the right order,” said the author. “Not telling us something, Malcolm, but showing us something, using metaphor, using simile, using a few words to say a lot. When you read it on the page it really connects with you. I think spoken word is a little different. It does all of that stuff, but it does it all in a performance. It’s not necessarily for the page, it’s for the stage.”  

Jackson M. '28, who read The Crossover with the rest of his 5th grade class, then asked, “As a Black author and a poet, what challenges did you have to overcome?

“Generally, Jackson, I think I’m the man,” said the author, laughing. “I told you how my mother made me think I was awesome from a very early age, so I’ve moved through life feeling that level of confidence: that I am amazing, that I am the greatest, and I hope you are, too! There have been times throughout my life, when people said, you aren’t, and that may have been because of my race.” 

“There’s a great Langston Hughes poem about this,” said the author, and he recited the poem from memory. “How other people feel about me is a testament to them, not to me,” said Alexander. “I know who I am. I’m still here.” 

 

Richie J. '24 then asked how the author manages to keep up that motivation while writing so many books.

“I surround myself with the right people, Richie. My motivation is to tell great stories, so I surround myself with yes people, people who say yes to life, who say yes to what’s possible.”

The four students nodded. It was clear the words resonated. 

“Put people around you who are all about bigging you up: it’s as simple as that. They keep you motivated. You got people like that in your life Richie?” 

“I do. I really do,” said Richie. “The people in my life do their best to raise me.” 

Next up was 6th grader Owen C., who wanted to know if “The Crossover and The Rebound are based on experiences you had as a kid?” 

“Let me say this, Owen, everything I write I totally make up. It’s all imagined, and I take inspiration from things I’ve been through.”  

Upper School English Teacher Tory Mathieson also understands the importance of sparking inspiration for creative writing and asked if the author would offer a poetry prompt, using one of the author’s own lines as a starting point. 

All agreed it was a great question, and after thinking for a few moments, Kwame Alexander, suggested this line as a starting point: “This is what I know.”  Two 9th graders sent us their Kwame Alexander-inspired poems. Read them below. 

The evening was certainly an inspiration for these four students––and all of us at home. 

To learn more about the NIA Endowed Scholarship for Students of Color at Head-Royce, click here. Donations––any amount helps!-– are accepted at headroyce.org/nia


 

Poems Inspired by Kwame Alexander